Removing the veil of intolerance

As a Muslim, I believe that those who profess to believe in the teachings of
Islam should always endeavor to live by its edicts, including the requirements
and guidelines in modesty (in dress).

Having said that, we also need to recognize and respect those who differ
from us and the values they uphold that may be at odds with ours. We need to
recognize that for such people, any institution they set up or sponsor may not
be accommodating to our values.

I have been (and still am) opposed to constitutionally designating The
Gambia as a “secular” republic and have openly expressed that view. I
hold this view for the simple fact that in a country whose citizens are entirely
adherents of religious doctrine (Islam and Christianity), the next natural step
after a legal ‘secular’ designation is an anti-religion advocacy and stance
from the other extreme, a position that is diametrical to being secular. The
Gambia observes secularism is all spheres of public life. That culture of
tolerance and accommodating each other saw us through decades of peaceful
coexistence; an enduring national culture that is increasingly under threat
from extremism on both sides of the debate.

The issue of students wearing veils (head covering) in addition to their
uniform has been and continues to be a flash point in our increasingly divided

Like all things Gambian, this too garners so much public debate; from the ignorant’
s illogical ramblings to the extreme ideologue’s bigoted stance, there is no
shortage of  opinions. What is lacking,
sadly, is a rational, logical argument guided and informed by reason.

Any institution that receives public funding should not be seen to be
discriminatory in any way, or have policies in place that restrict, hinder, or
unduly impact one’s freedom to exercise one’s beliefs. As far as I can tell,
the issue surrounding wearing the veil is in private/mission schools.

If these are strictly privately run mission schools, then they have the
right to allow or not allow students wearing veils within their campus. Is an
expression of intolerance and unwillingness to be accommodating? Absolutely. So,
in that case, for the parents and students who want to observe their religious requirements
without hinderance, such schools should not be on their list of choices for

What is unacceptable and should be condemned by all, are the claims that
students are forced to remove their coverings when they enter the school premises.
That is extreme, abusive and a violation of religious rights that cannot be
justified nor condoned. If a student shows up to school with attire that does
not pass the uniform requirement, the school authorities should send them home
for the day. If a student misses enough days, the parents will seek an
alternative, to either sacrifice their religious ideals to access education or
find a different school. I think that option should be preferred over
violations of individual rights in attempts to impose school codes. It should
never come to that.

To the Muslim parents and religious leaders, my advice is this, if a school
receives your money in return for tutoring your child but has no respect for that
child’s religious values, then pick a different school choice. Why patronize
someone who does not value you or your beliefs? Take your kids and your money
and seek alternative schools.

Having said that, why should we enact school rules and codes that do not
cater to the cultural and religious identities of most of the population it

Civil rights groups in the United States have long fought against what is
termed ‘hair discrimination’ in American schools where certain hair styles only
specific to Black culture are not allowed. Such extreme school codes are seen
as an attempt at suppressing Black identity. The debate around the issue raised
the important question; what is the significance of such restrictions or their
impact on the academic success of students? Turns out wearing black hairstyles
does not impede academic success in any way.

Religious symbolism obviously does not equate biological identity, this is
just a point of reference leading us to ask, how does the veil/head covering of
Muslim girls impede their educational success? In fact, right next door, students
in Senegal are not all required to be uniformed. Why are such colonial relics
so vital that we are willing to sacrifice our social ties to enforce them?

If the ban on veils is made to ensure the educational success of students,
then the evidence needs to be produced to back that claim. If educational
success is not the primary concern, then that leaves one obvious reason; Muslim
identity is not welcome in Christian/mission schools. Now if that is the case
then such things need to be spelt out. The resistance these school authorities
encounter from the public is borne out of the fact that Muslim students are
accepted into such schools and later told their Islamic values are not in conformity
with school codes. Spelling it out clearly at enrolment will address the issue entirely
to avoid future confrontation.

But here is a simple solution; if any of these schools receive ANY public
funding/subvention, then the government should step in and decide if such
public funding should be contingent on non-discriminatory practice towards students
who choose to portray their religious identity. The government could also cease
to give funding to such schools from public funds to allow them a free hand to
run their schools in accordance with their own religious/secular doctrines, IF
such schools in fact receive any funds from the public coffers.

The sad fact is that when such disagreement brings out resentment within our
discourse, they strain relationships that can never be rebuilt, at least not
without enduring misgivings and religious intolerance only begets extremism.





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